Hula Tells Stories Through Dance

Greetings USFers. In correlation with the USF Hawaiian Ensemble’s annual dinner-and-a-show extravaganza this upcoming Friday (A.K.A. their Ho’ike), this column will be dedicated to music and dance in Hawaiian culture.

“Hula is not just an entertaining swinging of grass skirts and coconuts,” said USF Hawaiian Ensemble’s president, biology major Mahealani Lum. “Ho’ike means ‘to show.’ So through hula – the traditional way our ancestors would exhibit a story – we would be raising awareness of the critical events of Hawaiian history, educating people of the real social and political issues that Hawaiians have faced.”

It’s a far stretch for us today to consider notions of education without reading assignments, essays and occasional in-class stick-figure doodling, but the pre-modern Hawaiian language had no written script. Thus dance and their accompanying “mele,” (literally “poetic language” but the word is used in Hawaiian to mean “song”) served as the principal form of recording stories and history.

Hula was actually banned in the 1820s by the colonizing Christians who saw the dance as vulgar and hedonistic.  It’s easy to see why European missionaries who got hot under their lacey collars at the sight of ankles and forearms, much less at the sight of an abdomen, would be scandalized by the indigenous Hawaiian culture.  But the significance of hula to Hawaiians is more than skin-deep.

The mele themselves, with their abundance of double-meanings and allegorical natural symbolism, are considered sacred.  The fiercely safeguarded integrity of the mele allows for hula to always be a fresh and relevant form of recounting history. New generations of Hawaiians can choreograph their own dances to traditional stories, such as the ancient Hawaiian creation chant the Kumulipo.

Following in this custom, the Hawaiian Ensemble will perform student written and choreographed compilations. “The reason why I write my own songs for our hula is that mele are sacred,” said Lum. “The artist wrote the song for a specific purpose and if that purpose or message is not conveyed correctly, then the mele has not been done justice… I am not an expert, and it is not protocol for me to take someone else’s work and interpret it the way I please. I take pride in creating hula, I take pride in dancing it. We have a saying: ‘Aa i ka hula, waiho ka hilahila ma ka hale.’ ‘Dare to dance, leave your shame at home.’”

When a dancer is called to dance she is expected to express her emotion with her entire body and soul, never holding back because of embarrassment or shyness. Hula was a way to tell a story or pass down history, and if it is not danced “all out,” then pieces of the story could be lost or misinterpreted.

The significance of the dances are not lost on us main-landers, once we get past the foreignness of a language that uses “poo poo” to mean appetizer.  Hospitality major and ensemble dancer Lindsey Pappas said, “When you learn the dances, they have so much meaning and symbolism so you can’t help but be blown away.”

To learn more about dance and music in Hawaiian culture, and potentially munch on some poo-poos, go to the presentation theater April 9th to experience the Ho’ike.  For pre-sale ticket information you can contact or check out their facebook group.

I realized that the all consuming face-crack may have become our own culture’s form of storytelling and historical record when my father, whose slang vocabulary consists of words like “dope’n,” requested me as his virtual friend. But perhaps that calamity can be avoided by learning more about cultural expression with tangible, bodily communication. All hail-the hip swivel, Obi-one-can-dance-y, you may be our only hope.


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